My mother was a single parent who worked every shift possible so that my sister and I had food on our plates and clothes on our back. It was the summer of 1963 when my father walked out the front door to buy smokes and milk and never came back. I was just 5 years old, Sara was only 3. She has no memory of our father, but I do. Although I remember him as being tall, he really wasn’t much taller than my mother, and she was only 5’4″. He had dark brown hair and the beginnings of a beard growing on his face. It never grew into a full beard; it was always just the beginnings of one. He had an odor which I didn’t know was rye until much later in life.
Our lives were much better after he had left. In the weeks that followed I remember telling Sara that I hope he never comes home. Even Sara had commented that mom was much happier. Mom was able to convince her sister to watch over Sara and me while she went to work at the factory. Aunt Paula was younger than mom and had no kids. She was newly married to a man in a business suit. He worked in a bank, if I remember correctly. They didn’t remain married long. After Aunt Paula’s divorce she and mom rented a two bedroom apartment in Scarborough. Sara and I slept in one bedroom and mom and Aunt Paula shared the master bedroom. I remember those as being enjoyable times. The four of us would do everything together. We would go to the Canadian National Exhibition on the Labour Day weekend and the Santa Claus parade each November. Aunt Paula was like a second mother to us and we treated her as such even years after we had grown up and moved from the apartment.
It was December 1966. Sara had just turned 7 years old and I was just weeks away from turning 9. Her and I were lying in our beds when she said, “Melissa, are you sleeping?”
“Not yet.” I said, “What’s wrong?”
“Julie told me there is no such thing as Santa Claus, is that true?”
“Yeah, Santa Claus isn’t real.” I said
“You knew and you didn’t you tell me?”
“Mom said not to. She told me that kids your age are supposed to believe in Santa.”
Sara was silent a few moments then said, “So where do the presents come from?”
“Mom and Aunt Paula.”
Sara laid quietly in the dark, thinking about her new discovery. I had trouble believing it when I was told. While Sara learned it from the kids at school, I learned of it from Aunt Paula’s lips. It was a slip of the tongue our first Christmas living with her. Mom sat me down and she explained that there was once, many years ago a man named Nicholas Claus who had built toys for the kids living in his village. Each year he would leave a toy on the doorstep of every kid’s house until he died a very old man. The parents in the village, having grown up with the surprises on their doorstep every December 25, had promised Nicholas that they would continue leaving toys for their children on the Christmas day. Mom had told me that it was a promise that parents kept even to this day. I told Sara what mom had told me.
“Do you think Nicholas looked like Santa?”
“Probably.” I said. In actuality the Santa we grew up with was created in a marketing board room for a series of Coca-Cola ads in early 1900’s, but didn’t need to know that.
“Good night Melissa.” she said.
I said good night and before long both my sister and I were asleep.
Every fourth week both mom and Aunt Paula worked during the day on a Saturday. Normally they were able to arrange the shifts at the plant so that one of them was home with us, but in the case of those fourth Saturdays Sara and I were left on our own from 7 am until sometime after 6 in the evening. Sara and I spent the day in front of the TV. Mom had bought it early last summer and told us that it will help pass the time during summer vacation.
“Where do you think Mom keeps the presents?” Sara asked while she ate her breakfast in front of the TV.
“What do you mean?”
“Julie told me that if I look around the apartment, I should be able to find where mom’s hidden the toys and then I can find out what I’m getting for Christmas.”
“Why would you want to know what you’re getting?”
“So I won’t be disappointed.” she said.
“That doesn’t make sense.” I said.
“It doesn’t have to. Are you going to help me look for them?”
I shook my head, “No. I want to be surprised on Christmas morning.”
We finished our cereal watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. When it was over Sara and I took our breakfast bowls into the kitchen and washed them. As we always did, we left them on the rack to dry. Sara was eyeing the door at the end of the hall.
“Do you think they’re in her bedroom?” she asked.
“Where else would she hide them?” I said.
Sara’s eyes lit up. “Wanna come and check?”
“No.” I said. “Mom and Aunt Paula worked hard to surprise us on Christmas morning. I like being surprised.”
Sara was already half way down the hall. “Well, I don’t.”
I had no other choice but to follow her into mom’s bedroom. It was rare that we ever stepped into my mother’s bedroom and never without an invitation. Well, never except for this one time. Sara was already looking under mom’s bed by the time I caught up with her. I stood watching as my sister rummaged through the closet after finding nothing under the bed.
“Aren’t you going to help?”
“I’ve told you already. No.” I just stood in the doorway watching as she carefully turned the bedroom upside down searching for the gifts. “Maybe we’re not getting anything this year?” I said.
“They promised Santa. All parents promised Santa. You said.” She had dropped to her hands and knees and had peered under Aunt Paula’s bed. That’s where she found it, a large red holiday bag from Honest Ed’s department store. It was stuffed full of boxes when Sara slid it out from under the bed. We had been to Honest Ed’s before. It was all the way across town and took an hour to get there on the subway. Mom and Aunt Paula liked the store because it was much less expensive than Eaton’s or Simpsons.
“Look at how full it is.” Sara said, sitting herself next to the bag.
“Okay, you’ve seen it,” I said. “Put it back.”
“Hold on Mel. I wanna see what’s in it.” Sara began to pull the gifts from the bag. They had not been wrapped yet so we saw there were art supplies, some clothes, including a dress that would become my favourite and there was the doll. It stood two feet tall and was made of stiff plastic with a blonde mop of curls stitched into her head. When she was tipped forward and back her blue eyes would blink. The doll was for Sara and she thought it was the most beautiful doll in the world. She sat there on the floor of my mother’s bedroom studying the doll and the pretty little plastic smile moulded on her face.
“It says here that her name is Betsy Wetsy.” Sara read from the back of the box. “She drinks water out of her bottle and she wets her diapers, like a real baby.”
To this day I ask myself, what’s the point of a doll that wets itself? “Okay, put everything back in the bag exactly the way you found it.” I said.
Sara began by putting the clothes and art supplies into the bag. Then she lifted the two foot tall box and looked at the doll’s face longingly before slipping it into the bag. To my horror the bottom corner of the box caught the bag and tore it from top to bottom.
“Look what you’ve done!” I said.
Sara looked at the rip. “So?”
“So? What do you mean ‘so’? Mom’s going to know we were snooping for our presents. We’re going to get into trouble.”
“Mom will think her or Aunt Paula ripped the bag.”
“Have you ever seen mom rip a bag before. There is a closet full of unripped bags in the front hall.” I said. “Go to the closet and see if there’s an Honest Ed bag in there.”
Sara stood reluctantly and headed out to the closet. I examined the rip in the bag. It was as serious as it looked. I knew mom would be disappointed that we had entered her bedroom, found the gifts and spoiled the surprise of Christmas. When Sara returned from the front closet she had two large Honest Ed’s bags. Neither of the bags were the holiday bag. The holiday bag was red with Santa printed on the sides of the bag with snowflakes falling down the sides of the bag. “They’re not right.” I said. “We need a holiday bag.”
“Where are we going to get a holiday bag?” Sara said.
“Honest Ed’s.” I said after weighing our options.
“We’re not allowed to leave the apartment when mom and Aunt Paula aren’t home. We can’t go to Honest Ed’s by ourselves. That’s a long way.” Sara was almost in tears. She was always so quick to cry.
I was more worried about disappointing mom than traveling across the city. “Go get the money jar, let’s see how much we have.”
In tears Sara ran into our bedroom and returned with the money jar. It was a large mason jar full of coins that Sara and I had been filling for months. I opened the jar and spilled the money across mom’s dresser and started to count out the change. I remember thinking of how many pennies we had and how few quarters. When I reached ten dollars I decided that would be enough and filled my pants pocket with the loose change.
“Go get your boots and coat on, we need to get moving.” At this point Sara was following my instructions the same way a private obeyed his commanding officer. She has finally realized the seriousness of our situation. Before I got my coat on I pulled the phone book out of the closest and looked up the address of Honest Ed’s. I wrote down the address and shoved the piece of paper into my pants pocket.
Not ten minutes later we were standing at the bus stop. The snow was above our ankles as we waited for the next westbound bus. When it arrived, Sara and I climbed on board. The bus driver studied us as we dropped our money into the cash box.
“You two look a little young to be traveling on the bus without your parents.” he said.
“Thank you for your concern, but it’s Christmas and we still need to get our mother a gift.” I said. Pointing Sara towards the rear of the bus and we took a bench seat.
“Do you know where to get off?” Sara asked.
“We’re traveling all the way to the new Woodbine Subway station.” I said. In 1966 the Bloor Danforth subway was brand new; it had opened earlier in the year and we had only been on it a couple of times with mom and Aunt Paula. We followed the other bus riders when we reached the station and found our way to the subway platform. With the whoosh of air the subway arrived. We boarded and took a seat next to the doors. After we were on our way I got up and walked over to the system map and searched for Bathurst Street Station. It was on the other side of the Yonge Street station. I counted the number of stations until Bathurst and then took my seat next to Sara.
We counted down the stations as they came and went. After the last one, we walked over to the doors and waited for the subway to stop. As the train pulled out of Bathurst station we followed a couple of people back up to the surface. Once on Bloor Street Sara spotted the store down the street immediately. Our pace quickened as the cold winter wind brought tears to our eyes. It had started to snow while we were in the subway and everything had a fresh layer of white covering it that crunched under our boots. Even in 1966 the store filled a city block. As we reached the doors I said to Sara, “I don’t have time to look for you, so stay close.” I pushed open the doors and we entered. The store looked different from how it looked when mom and Aunt Paula were with us. It appeared larger, as though it was waiting to swallow two lonely girls up.
The wide isles were crowded with tables and bins overflowing with merchandise. Hand-written signs hung from the ceiling with funny puns advertising goods. One of my favourites was amongst the signs outside the store, “Honest Ed is for the birds, CHEAP! CHEAP! CHEAP!” I felt like two explorers weaving through the jungle looking for a lost temple or in our case, the cash register. It took a few minutes for us get through the crowds, but we finally took our place in line.
The line was slow and I kept looking at my watch. Mom and Paula will be home in less than two hours and we had to get the bag and return home before they got there. Eventually we reached the front of the line. An elderly woman stood at the cash register and looked down at my little sister and I. She saw that we were empty handed. “What are you buying?” she asked.
“We aren’t buying anything, but we need one of your holiday bags, the large one, please.” I said to her.
“Why do you need a bag if you’re not buying anything?” she said.
“We were snooping in my mother’s room and ripped the bag she had our Christmas presents in.” I admitted.
The woman leaned closer to us. “I can’t just give you a bag. You’ll need to buy something first.”
The isle leading to the cash register was surrounded with counters of impulse buy products. The candy bars were within reach so I snatched one and placed it on the counter in front of the woman. She rang it in and I pulled the correct change from my pocket.
“Which bag do you need?” she asked.
I pointed to the large Christmas bag with Santa on the sides, surrounded by falling snow. “That one please.”
I took the bag with the lone, tiny candy bar in it and Sara and I left the store. My watch said we had just over an hour. I remember thinking that we were not going to make it back in time, but that didn’t stop me from trying. If we were caught mom would be so disappointed in us. She had given up so much of her life to raise her two girls that I didn’t want to disappoint her.
Once back on Bloor Street I reached into the bag and pulled out the candy bar and handed it to Sara. “Don’t eat it until we’re back on the subway.” I said as I folded the Christmas bag. I didn’t want it to get damaged between here and home. The snow was really starting to pile up and walking had become very difficult by the time we had reached the subway’s entrance.
Once we were on the subway Sara pulled the candy bar out of her pocket and unwrapped it. “Do you want the first bite?” she offered.
“No thanks. You enjoy it.” I said.
She had it gone before we reached the other end of the subway line. We rode the bus back to the apartment in silence. I held the bag close to make sure nothing happened to it while looking at my watch every 10 minutes.
Once we were back in the apartment I told Sara to get a bath towel and dry our coats and boots, making sure she doesn’t get any on the floor. I headed into mom’s bedroom and compared the two bags. It was a perfect match. I carefully slipped the Christmas presents into the new bag, cursing Betsy Wetsy as she returned to the bag.
“Everything is dry and the towel is in the hamper.” Sara reported.
“Very good.” I said pushing the loaded bag back under Aunt Paula’s bed. I grabbed the ripped bag and handed it to Sara. “Take this and the candy bar wrapper and put them in the garbage chute.”
I closed the bedroom door as it was when mom left for work this morning and returned to the living room. Sara joined me moments later and we turned the TV.
The cartoon was just ending when mom and Aunt Paula returned from work. We said nothing of our Christmas adventure to Honest Ed’s. In the weeks leading up to Christmas mom never said anything to us about the presents. I don’t think she even noticed it was a different bag.
Christmas morning came and Sara and I pretended to be surprised with our gifts. The dress fit me perfectly and Sara loved her doll. Betsy Wetsy became another sister to me since she went everywhere Sara went. The two were inseparable for a number of months. Sara wound feed the doll a small bottle of water and it would take hours for it to leak out into her diaper. After getting Sara’s sheets wet one night, poor Betsy Wetsy lived the rest of her life in the back of our closet.